Sunday, February 9, 2014

What is the "Right" Postacademic Job?

As you may have just read (and if not, go read it now!), my fellow post-academic and co-editor Kathleen has landed herself a new fulltime job working for an online university! She will be working with and mentoring university students, teaching a few online classes, and will be staying in the geographic location that she is currently living in without having to relocate. Oh, and it will also pay her a generous full-time salary with benefits. Yayyyyy Kathleen!!

(Because I feel like I should say this: I know what school she will be working for, and it's not one of the "diploma mill" online schools that are often criticized. Though for reasons that I will outline below, I wouldn't care if it was ... because I firmly believe that any nonacademic job is a valid choice for people who leave academia.)

So, the other night when Kathleen emailed Lauren and me to tell us about her new job, she was a little worried that she would be considered a "postacademic impostor" once she announced her new job: that she would be criticized for not taking the "right" kind of postacademic job (because online universities have come under fire lately from folks in academia and postacademia), or that taking a job that involved teaching and mentoring was not far enough outside of traditional academia to truly qualify as a postacademic job.

As I told Kathleen last week, I don't agree with that assessment at all. And thinking about that conversation has actually motivated me to write my first blog post in a long, long time.

I've been out of academia for nearly three years now, and the postacademic blogosphere and world have changed considerably during that time. Most of that shift has been wonderful - we are getting national press coverage and having public conversations about leaving academia, and the decision to leave is losing a lot of its stigma and the people who do it are being brought out of the shadows.

But along with the growing visibility of the postacademic blogosphere, I've also noticed a not-so-great shift in the types of conversations we're having.

The postacademic blogosphere used to be primarily about how individual bloggers were leaving academia without a net or a guide, and about their success (or lack thereof) at finding some job - any job - that would help them fully break free from academia's totalitarian culture and strict guidelines for what was acceptable. We had popular postacademic bloggers who worked as temps, as secretaries, as office managers, and even those who were unemployed for a while as they tried to find a new job. But we supported each other, and we reassured each other, and we talked about how even our not-so-glamorous jobs were terrific in comparison to adjuncting! And that our stable jobs (no matter what they were!) were better than begging for graduate funding every year while we took multiple futile stabs at the academic job market. At that time, leaving was the end goal for postacademics. It didn't matter what you did next, as long as you broke free of academia.

In contrast, today's postac blogsophere has been more focused on scathing critiques of higher education and academia, and on profiles of successful people who have left academia and are well-established in new careers. I think that these types of pieces are certainly useful for new postacademics to read (scathing critiques abound in my archives, of course!), but this new focus has left a noticeable hole in the blogosphere. The highly personal, individual stories about the struggles and ups and downs of individual people as they are initially leaving academia and trying to find some stable footing elsewhere are all but missing in today's postacademic world. (Though such stories abound in our e-book, which can be bought here or here!)

That's understandable, to a point - as postacademia becomes more public, the types of conversations that we have will change. But to tie this back to my conversation with Kathleen--in which she worried that her new job meant that she was "doing postacademia wrong"--I worry that the absence of stories about the struggles and hard decisions that many postacs go through as they leave may inadvertently make future academic leavers feel anxious or apprehensive. If new postacs don't know what kind of career they want after they leave, is that okay? Because most of what they will read in today's blogosphere is about people leaving and landing awesome, elite, PhD-level jobs.

Similarly, if they don't land a perfect, academically-approved postac job right away, are they doing postacademia right? If they wind up temping for a little while as they figure out what comes next, should they feel like failures? If they get a good job with a generous salary and benefits in an industry that other postacademics are criticizing publicly, should they stay quiet because it's not a "good" job??

I worry that if postacademia continues to highlight only the biggest postac successes, they will be inadvertently ignoring people whose paths out of academia aren't quite as blessed. And in turn, I worry that we may be doing a disservice to the people who will be looking to the postac blogosphere for advice in the future, especially if they don't know exactly what they want to do next. (You know...people like Kathleen and me, 2-3 years ago.)

So in today's shifting postacademic blogsophere, I want to be clear about something that I believe with every fiber of my being (and that I do believe most postacademics believe, for the record): short of contract killing or drug trafficking, there are no "good" or "bad" postacademic jobs. There is no "right" or "wrong" way to do postacademia. 

In order to do postacademia "right" (according to me), you need to find a job that fulfills two goals: (1) one that pays you enough money so that you can live a stable life, and (2) one in which your employer treats you better than how folks are treated in the worst aspects of academia.

Those are the goals you should be focused on. You shouldn't be wasting your time thinking about whether you're getting the "right" job (according to your former academic colleagues or according to what you read in an interview with a successful postac that one time). Just find a job that breaks you from traditional academia and that lets you live a stable adult life.

Goal #1 will vary based on your individual circumstances. Maybe you have a big savings account already or a wealthy partner, so you can afford to work sporadic, one-off jobs after you leave. Or maybe you have a well-paying academic job that you don't despise, so you decide to hang out in grad school or in your faculty job until you land the perfect nonacademic career you're dreaming of.

Great!! Good postacademic-ing! Keep on looking for that job you really want!

But some people can't hold out for that dream job. Maybe they can only find academic work as an adjunct or on a one-year VAP post across the country, and they need more money and stability than that. Maybe they have kids, or a mortgage, or student loans...whatever it is, their situation is not sustainable in academia. They need to leave now, and can't afford to keep adjuncting (or freelancing part-time or interning for no pay) until their perfect job appears.

So for those people - and I want to be very, very clear about this - taking any job that offers financial stability is a wonderful postacademic move.

Even if you are working for the most soul-sucking, nasty, for-profit corporation in the world, you are doing postacademia right. Because you have broken from academia and you are making ends meet, and you have therefore given yourself the freedom to pay your bills and think about what comes next for you, career- and life-wise. Maybe you will land a "better" career at the perfect nonprofit think tank you've always dreamed of next. If so, great! But the point is - if you don't, that's great too! Because you are a successful postacademic at the very moment that you break free from academia.

You have removed desperation from the equation. You're no longer frantically wondering if the academic job market is going to come through for you, or what you're going to do if it doesn't. You're no longer eyeing the impending cancellation date for your graduate or VAP health insurance and wondering how the hell you are going to pay for a new plan when you may have no salary if another institution doesn't pick you up. And you're no longer researching how long it will take you to get food stamps for your kids if you find out in June that your adjunct contract won't be renewed for the following year. You are outside of the traditional academic structure and now you can look forward and figure out what comes next.

And this brings me around to goal #2 - how do you know whether your new postac job is "good enough" for postacademia?

In my opinion...if your new job treats you well (however you define that) and your job title is not "Professor," you are a postacademic success story. No matter where you work.

Any job that gives you whatever benefits you, personally, need (on top of a solid salary) is better than the worst aspects of academia, in which you're expected to work for any amount of pay and any crappy benefits that an academic institution is willing to charitably bestow upon you.

Any job that does not demand that you have to suck it up and move to a geographic location in which you don't want to live (and that you are told to be grateful for, because there are 1000 people who would love to be in your shoes!!) is better than the worst aspects of academia.

Any job for which being fired or laid off would qualify you for unemployment benefits is better than the worst aspects of academia.

Any industry that hires year-round, rather than during the same four-month schedule every year (and too bad for you if you need a job in May!), is better than the worst aspects of academia. Bonus points if your interview for said job took place in an office, rather than on a hotel bed.

Any job where you're treated like an employee rather than an indentured servant who should be grateful for the opportunity is better than the worst aspects of academia. I don't care what industry you're working in or what your job title is ... if academia is forcing you to live in poverty or to be utterly miserable, any other job is an upgrade from that.

So my job at a consulting firm (with fulltime salary and benefits in the town that I want to live in, on a contract that has no foreseeable end) qualifies as a postacademic job, and a success. Kathleen's new job as a mentor/instructor at an online university (with fulltime salary and benefits in the town that she wants to live in with a contact that has no foreseeable end) qualifies as a successful postacademic job. My friend who works at a research center at our old university (with the same benefits as above) is a successful postacademic. The secretarial job that the old blogger Recent Ph.D. got after she left academia (fulltime salary, benefits, city she liked, indefinite contract) made her a successful postacademic.

Every one of those people is a successful postacademic because they have found something better than they could get in academia. The point is not what your job title is or what your qualifications are, but that you are refusing to play by academia's batshit rules anymore. You are declaring yourself as a qualified and educated adult who deserves some stability and a living wage. And once you have that, you are a successful postacademic.

So if you find that stability and a living wage in a teaching/mentoring position without the title of "professor," then that's great! Good postacademic-ing! If you find that in a secretarial job, then that's great! If you find it in a freelance or entrepreneurial career, then that's great! High-five!

Because no one - NO ONE - who leaves academia should feel bad about the type of job that they get. (Again, unless they are becoming a contract killer. If you are doing that, you should feel bad.)

The point of postacademia isn't getting a certain type of socially-approved job. It's about breaking free of academia's bullshit rules and of getting yourself a sustainable adult life.

So no matter what kind of postacademic job you get, be proud of yourself. I sure am.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I've also been troubled lately by many postacademic conversations, but mostly at Versatile PhD and VPhD face-to-face meetings I attend. I couldn't quite put my finger on it until I read your post. Before I withdrew from grad school ABD about a year ago, I came to your blog and the others on your roll for inspiration. What helped me a lot was getting over the psychological barrier that leaving academia was alright, that I wasn't weak, that there wasn't anything wrong with me. That ultimately, my happiness came from what I valued not a status symbol that others told me made me a smart and worthy person.

    I started a full-time administrative position at a local university a few months ago. It fulfills the criteria you listed above. It has helped me a lot in gaining confidence. While I know it's not what I want to do long-term, I'm grateful to have the stability while I do work towards the job that I want. (Because realistically, most of us right out of academia don't have the skillset to immediately land the job that we want, nor do many of us know what we want right after we leave). But what has really bothered me is the reaction that I've received at VersatilePhD meetings about my job. When I mention my job, I quickly get glossed over for the other attendees who have more glamorous jobs like private school teaching and marketing consultant. I also don't feel like my advice is taken seriously, partly because I didn't get my PhD. (Someone actually suggested at one meeting that I consider getting a PhD).

    Many of the postacademics or soon-to-be postacademics I meet at these meetings seem like they just want to maintain a certain high status, according to our society. Sure, leaving postacademia can mean whatever the postacademic wants. But I want those who are considering leaving to know that it's alright if they don't want the status. That's a completely reasonable option.

    1. In my worst moments, I am starting to worry that the same status/prestige one-upsmanship battles that used to happen in academia are trickling over into postacademia. I notice the same thing that you've mentioned in terms of the Ph.D. v. not-Ph.D. postacs, as well as from people who give me a bit of side-eye when I tell them I've left but don't have a sexy research or writing job.

      But I'm happy. NOT constantly striving for the next accolade or worrying about what everyone else thinks about my career progress is making me happy. Having free time to pursue my interests and think about what career I might want next makes me happy.

      I am really glad that there are people out there who want to support the really ambitious, entrepreneurial postac community. But that should not be the only types of messages that we're giving out to people who want to leave.

      I know that those of us who run HTLA are supportive of this wider goal of postac ("Make yourself happy, career be damned."). And I in particular am going to try to start blogging more frequently, so that we have a variety of voices out here supporting people.

      Congrats on your non-ac job! I am really, really proud of you for getting out and for gaining some happiness. Congrats!! :)

  2. Thank you for bringing this up. I've been adjuncting since 2009 and CANNOT find my way out of this. I have been applying for jobs, networking, all the standard "leaving" strategies since Feb 2010 and still, I adjunct. I even had a ton of work experience before academia so I have plenty to talk about on my resume that's non-academic. This was never a problem before the Recession. It makes me cry when I see other post acs getting jobs. I'm not begrudging anybody, it's just that I'm suffering endlessly through this and I cannot for the life of me find my way out. I don't know how you guys have done it. (Good on you though.) Half my thirties have been spent suffering and living off my family while trying fruitlessly to get a job that pays the bills. I've spent alot of time these past 4.5 years in tears. I'm not in a relationship--who wants an angry depressed, financially-stressed girlfriend who can seemingly do nothing to change the situation?? And I have no idea how I would ever have kids. I don't know what to do. I just beg God every day to have some mercy on me for fuck's sake one of these days. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for writing.

      I got my job because I started on a part-time basis when I was still in grad school - just helping the company out (in an industry I'd been working in prior to grad school). I got hired because I, frankly, didn't cost the company much and didn't need benefits at the time. And then I was good at my job, so I got promoted once I decided to leave academia.

      It was simple luck for me. unfortunately. I didn't do much to seek out a new job and simply fell into the job that's still been okay for me. I've gotten really lucky.

      I know that some postacs have had some luck with temp agencies - signing up for even temporary contract work that can lead to something more permanent and/or give them more relevant job experience that will lead to a permanent position.

      We are going to get our forum at How to Leave Academia up and running soon, and hopefully that will become a space where other postacs can offer advice and post job listings. In the meantime...hang in there. We are here to help you in whatever way we can.

    2. Thanks a lot for writing back. I'm still trying the temp agencies as well but I haven't gotten much out of any of them. I'm hoping things turn around this year and I get a full time job with benefits. I've had a couple of interviews since December which is INCREDIBLE so perhaps things will finally turn around. I'm hoping to take political action at this point as well and am looking for ways to do that. We have got to get big money out of our politics. If democracy was strong and real none of this would be happening--in academia or any other sector. My student loan has gone up $3K during my un/underemployment era. The banks destroy my life and my opportunities then monetize my unemployment!!!?? Seriously, what on Earth has this country come to??!!

  3. Hi JC! it's good to see a new post. I'm glad that your post ac life has gradually shifted from one of frustration and sadness to a satisfactory career and work/life balance. Reading your thoughtful writings over the last couple of years has been a big help to me and doubtlessly to many others.

    1. Thanks, Mia!!

      I am pretty happy right now. I'm sad that I haven't been blogging as much, but real life things as well as the e-book (for which I did a lot of back-end editing and publishing work) ate up a lot of my time in the last year or so.

      But that's done now, so my goal is to do more blogging this year. I've missed it.

      Thanks for your kind comments!

  4. The2YearLifeoftheMindFebruary 10, 2014 at 6:37 AM

    Oh Dear JC, I do believe you have found your niche market!

    I completely concur with the comments here about the idea of prestige seeping into the post-ac arena. In fact, the branch of the CC I left is facing some serious shake-ups at the end of this semester and when I left last year, my colleagues didn't seem concerned. More than that, they actually go MAD at me for even SUGGESTING that higher ed and my CC in general are facing some major disruptions in the near future.

    I'm fully convinced that one of the MAJOR reasons adjuncts keep pursuing multiple adjunct jobs and try-try-try for that full time teaching gig year after year is the prestige factor. Couple this with the concept of having a captured audience and the adjunct being the captain of the ship and you've got an elixir that rivals cocaine for some.

    There are some great articles out there about post-acs who didn't nail it right after leaving, including this famous story of a woman who worked slinging coffee and lattes for two years while she made her contacts in the industry where she eventually became a radio producer. What I've come to realize is that it's all about SKILLS. Get them, grow them, get more. I left five months ago and have been subbing at the high school level and living off my retirement while figuring out what's going on (and scrubbing off the dirt of academia which was equally difficult) which has been a learning curve. Truly, it's like learning to speak another language.

    Count me in as the "one of many" whom your blog has helped. I have a handful of blogs I follow that speak to me and I ignore the rest. But I do hope you pursue this avenue in the post-ac blosphere because there is a giant hole and I think you need to fill it. :)


  5. JC, totally agree about what's going on with the prestige factor in the post-ac blogosphere. I don't like it at all. On the one hand, it's great that there are so many more people finding theri way into this space. On the other hand, as readers of my blog may remember, I spent my first post-academic year and a half bringing other people their lunch and taking out the trash, but that sort of story isn't getting told often enough these days. And I'm sure it's happening to other people.

    In the year and a half since I left that job and started this new, post-secretary, post-academic job (double "post" -- huzzah!), I get asked a lot to tell people about Why The Humanities Matter To The World. In order to play along (and I have to play along for now), I have to gloss over and glamozrize not only the things that sucked about academe that made me leave but also the things that sucked in some ways about where I first landed.

    The mercenary values you have to embrace to make the leap -- as JC has eloquently described in this post in terms of goals -- don't gibe with how we've been taught as academics to think about what it means to live a meaningful life. But how can you live a meaningful life when you have nothing to live on and nothing to look forward to?

    Even in the nonprofit sector, I'm viewed by colleagues as somewhat of a mercenary. But you HAVE to be if you're going to move your career forward as a post-ac, even as you're smiling and telling everyone How Great The Humanities Are For The World.

    Piled Higher and Deeper, as they say ...

    I guess I'm rambling now and gone a little ways from the prestige issue, but ... anyway, I will be back up in my own space sooner or later, possibly reinventing on Wordpress but back up ranting and rambling in one way or another. This "old blogger" thanks JC and all the other post-ac bloggers and readers who have kept the conversation going.

    1. Haha to the "old blogger" comment. I looked for your blog the other day and saw it had disappeared! So when I wrote this post I thought about you as "recent PhD, who kept one of the old blogs that isn't around anymore." :)

      Anyway, I'm glad to hear that you'll be blogging more soon. I'm also working on a couple of new posts about adjunct/non-TT faculty justice and about these issues of prestige in postacademia, so stay tuned! (It's much easier to find time to blog once you aren't editing a full-length book!)

      Anyway, it's great to hear from you again!!! We miss you out here!

  6. And in case anyone missed it, I think it is a positive sign that, as of January 2014, Congress is paying attention to the plight of adjuncts

    Whether you're still in adjunct hell and trying to find your way out or already out and trying to process where you've just been, knowing someone powerful on the outside is listening. well, that's something. And -- on the subject of prestige -- to the credit of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which produced the report, adjuncts in the report are afforded more respect as highly trained professionals than I ever received from anyone inside academe.

  7. I'm still working on both points 1 and 2 of postac "success," a year after deciding to stop chasing adjuncts, VAP, or tenure-track windmills. My skills seem to be either too much, too little, or just wrong...and it's hard to get entry-level positions with that "PhD" sitting on your resume. I've replaced the desperation of the academic adjunct mill with the more general desperation of the long-term underemployed. It's definitely not all swivel chairs and smartphones out here.